MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Black Mass, Trumbo, Death by Hanging, Taviani Trilogy, Iron Ministry, Paprika, Black Panthers and more

Black Mass: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s only started watching movies recently would think that South Boston has always been the crime capital of America. It wasn’t until Peter Yate’s splendid adaptation of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released in 1973 and, a decade later, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict and several TV series and movies based on the novels of Robert B. Parker, that Beantown crime statistics became relevant to anyone outside New England. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s familiarity with the turf would help Gus Van Sant make Good Will Hunting such a treat, but it wasn’t until the release of the hyperviolent Southie and The Boondock Saints that South Boston assumed its rightful place, alongside New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, as a breeding ground for Irish American hooligans. Dorchester native Dennis Lehane picked up where George V. Higgins and Parker left off, with Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River providing the source material for two very good movies. (His short story, “Animal Rescue,” was adapted and relocated to Brooklyn, as the underappreciated The Drop.) Martin Scorsese found fertile ground in Boston for turning the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs into The Departed, and Affleck would return home as director of the bank-heist thriller, The Town. Last year, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass further tested the skills of Hollywood stars to master a dialect only recognizable to longtime residents of Southie or Dorchester. Like the fictional Showtime series, “Brotherhood,” which featured two Irish-American brothers on opposite sides of the law – Rhode Island, standing in for Southie — Black Mass depicts the rise and fall of gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger and his improbably more civilized sibling, political kingpin William “Billy” Bulger. (Jack Nicholson’s thuggish crime boss in The Departed was loosely modeled on Whitey Bulger, as well.)

Black Mass picks up on Bulger’s career after his release from federal prison in the late 1960s and the beginning of his longtime relationship with FBI Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who had grown up in the same housing project as the Bulgers and needed a leg up in the agency’s pecking order. As the battle-scarred leader of the Irish mob’s Winter Hill Gang, Bulger was a major player in every crime category in South Boston. He broke the time-honored rule against cooperating with law-enforcement officials to cement his position of power over the Patriarca crime family. This was OK with the FBI agents who were more interested in the breaking the stranglehold of the Italian Mafia and would benefitted professionally by bringing it down. In return for Bulger’s tips, not all of which were helpful, the Winter Hill Gang was given a free pass to run South Boston for 20 years. The FBI’s side of the quid pro quo would prove more embarrassing for the department than would the revelation of Bulger’s decision to rat on his enemies. Finally, though, the corrupted agents were replaced by new ones. In 1994, one step ahead of a RICO indictment, Bulger went on the lam for 16 years with his girlfriend. Trapped, his cohorts rushed to save their own asses. Some of them received lesser sentences than the federal and state authorities convicted of aiding the Winter Hill Gang. Connolly, credited with “turning” Bulger, has never shown much remorse for his action and is still in prison. All of this was related in, “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,” by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, a decade before Bulger would be brought to justice.

Unlike so many other Hollywood gangster movies, Black Mass doesn’t waste a lot of time attempting to humanize Bulger and his pals. Indeed, it can be argued that Johnny Depp’s decision to wear icy blue contact lens occasionally makes him look too demonic. At one point, the recently released ex-con orders his buddies to help an elderly woman with her groceries, but it’s a brief sequence, quickly overshadowed by violent crimes. Bulger’s pain over losing his 6-year-old son, Douglas, to Reyes disease, is feels genuine, if only because it heightens his resolve to stay out of jail. Otherwise, Depp’s portrayal honestly describes a sociopathic killer, who doesn’t feel as if societal rules apply to him. His wings would be clipped in 2011 after federals agents, responding to a tip, swooped down on the Santa Monica apartment he shared with longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig. She’s currently cooling her heels in a low-security Minnesota prison for conspiracy to harbor a fugitive and identity fraud. Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) remained loyal to his older brother and it ultimately would cost him his jobs as president of the Massachusetts Senate and that of the University of Massachusetts system. Cooper treats his downfall as fact, not tragedy. As crucial to understanding how things happen in Black Mass and other Southie-based films is the overwhelming perception of a community so lacking in charm, charisma and positive inertia that it practically defines what Karl Marx meant by lumpenproletariat. The only things that get between the characters and their shot glasses are family, religion and sports. Robert Mitchum’s Eddie “Fingers” Coyle and Peter Boyle’s bartender, Dillon, created the template for the characters in Black Mass more than 40 years ago, both as snitches and pawns in a much bigger game. If Bulger’s saga feels incomplete, it’s only because the book and movie end on a question mark. I’m sure there’s room for a sequel, documenting the gangster and his moll’s international search for a home, but Constantine Nasr’s fascinating hour-long documentary, “The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger,” included in the Blu-ray package renders it unnecessary.

Trumbo: Blu-ray
The story of the Hollywood 10 has haunted the movie industry for more than 60 years. The debates and protests that surrounded the awarding of an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan, in 1999, demonstrated just how little interest many insiders had in recognizing those artists who named names, while also being accorded the freedom to make unquestionably great films. With the exception of the Broadway theater guilds, blacklisting maintained a tight grip on all providers of entertainment and information for more than a decade. Even when the dam broke, a cloud of uncertainty remained as to how willing audiences and advertisers would be to forgive, forget and admit they’d been duped by megalomaniacal despots in Congress. The success of Spartacus and Exodus, both written by Dalton Trumbo, were huge successes despite his refusal to name names or otherwise participate in the witch hunt. He had won two Academy Awards in the 1950s, but under someone else’s name. Not everyone was so fortunate … or as necessary to the success of other actors and directors. Bryan Cranston’s twitchy portrayal of the writer in Jay Roach’s Trumbo has been nominated for a Best Actor statuette. He performs an amazing balancing act: maintaining Trumbo’s now-popular image of heroic crusader for personal liberty, while also depicting a man so self-absorbed that he treats his family as if they belonged to someone else. As delightfully idiosyncratic as Trumbo seems while sitting in his bathtub writing scripts, the rudeness directed at his daughter for interrupting him to share her birthday cake reveals something dark in the heart of this “millionaire communist.”  Likewise, when the teenager asks for time away from her courier duties to participate in civil rights protests, the writer dismisses her request as being somehow less important than churning out melodramas and exploitation vehicles in his tub. In fact, by comparison to too many other targets of the HUAC panel Trumbo’s agony was short-lived and limited to moving the family from a pleasant farm-like setting to blue-collar Highland Park. John McNamara’s screenplay doesn’t ignore or minimize the problems faced by others, but Trumbo isn’t their movie and the complexity of the politics surrounding leftist activity in Hollywood is to a few sentences in the prelude.

Being an advocate of workers’ rights and unions before and during World War II, when the USSR was ally, was relatively easy when compared to taking a stand against Stalinism and redefining what it means to be a socialist in a country whose economy depended on keeping unions in check. Louis C.K. does a nice job as Arlen Hird, an amalgam character who represents the true believers in the Writers Guild and pays for it with inoperable cancer. He and Trumbo nearly come to blows when they disagree on survival strategies. Political debates aside, however, it’s easy to spot the antagonists and cowards in Trumbo. The squeakiest wheel among the anti-communist contingent is gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who attacks the perceived passivity of studio heads with anti-Semitic threats. The cowardice of the Jewish-immigrant studio heads, who kowtowed before the weight of her rhetorical power. Walt Disney’s antagonism toward the guilds was well known and much appreciated by the HUAC panelists. The unasked question that will be left in the minds of some viewers is, “Could history repeat itself?” Trumbo doesn’t directly address it, perhaps because it would spoil the happy ending. Demagoguery has already raised its ugly head in the GOP primary debates and it’s only a matter of time before one of the candidates opens the can of worms containing evangelical and conservative desires to rein in the godless studios, writers and artists they blame for polluting popular culture. Absent the silver-tongued eloquence and political connections of Jack Valenti, the MPAA may not be powerful enough to hold off attacks by evangelical Christians, Tea Party politicians and Fox News pundits … who benefit whenever Rupert Murdoch’s studio interests score a direct hit at the box office. I can hear it, now: “Are you now or have you ever been an Atheist, Jew or Muslim? Despite the popularity of Cranston and John Goodman’s terrific portrayal of a producer more interested in making money than bowing to HUAC demands, Trumbo grossed less than $8 million in a release that never exceeded 660 domestic screens. The similarly themed Good Night, and Good Luck made several times that much money and did OK overseas, as well. The Way We Were, which also addressed the blacklist period, did pretty well, too. Even with my reservations, I think that Trumbo deserves to find an audience in DVD/Blu-ray. It adds a making-of featurette and backgrounder on the characters.

Death by Hanging: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
According to data reported on the Death Penalty Information Center website, there have been 47 botched executions of condemned criminals in U.S. prisons since 1982, some more hideous than others. I only mention this to alleviate any skepticism raised by the failed execution, by hanging, that constitutes the central conceit of Nagisa Oshima’s inky black Death by Hanging. Made in 1968, the famously provocative Japanese filmmaker (In the Realm of the Senses, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence) sets up the by-the-book execution by reminding viewers of the public’s overwhelming resistance to eliminating the death penalty. He also wonders out loud how many of the people in favor of retaining it actually know how the state goes about killing someone it deems unworthy of life. American audiences have a pretty good idea, by now, of the procedures observed here, but the Japanese system adheres to a formality that has been strictly observed for decades. The circus atmosphere that attends some executions here is thwarted by a degree of secrecy that would take the fun out of it for some American proponents of the death penalty. Here, every detail is taken into account and described by the narrator in a matter-of-fact tone. The only hitch in Death by Hanging comes when the doomed man refuses to give up the ghost and the witnesses have no idea of how to proceed. In America, the warden might simply order someone to close the curtains in the chamber until the presiding nurse or doctor can hit the right vein with the needle or the victim finally stops moaning, twitching or smoking, depending on the method favored at the time. Here, though, the warden, clergy, guards and other dignitaries are forced to deal with sometimes contradictory legal, extralegal, religious and existential questions that border on absurdist theater.

Not only do they argue over whether someone can be executed twice for the same crime, but also what constitutes death and consciousness. Moreover, in Japan, the killer must be aware of the severity of his act and understand that capital punishment is the proper remedy for this affront to humanity. If he’s left unconscious or amnesiac, as is the case in Death by Hanging, what the man had admitted to before the failed execution applies to a second attempt. Or, does it? Oshima was inspired by the case of Ri Chin’u, a Korean who murdered two Japanese girls in 1958. In the film, the corpse that refuses to die belongs to “R,” who, Oshima wants us to believe, was shaped by Japan’s historic persecution of South Koreans and growing up too impoverished to anticipate a meaningful life. Not only does “R” not die in the hanging, but, when he regains consciousness, he’s completely unaware of the circumstances under which he was imprisoned. To spark his erased memory, the witnesses and guards even go so far as to re-enact the rapes and murders of the girls. The behavior will remind viewers of works by Brecht, Beckett, Kafka, Ionesco and Pinter. Things get even stranger when the re-enactors leave the chamber and go into the city streets, where the crimes happened. The supplemental features include a new video piece, featuring critic and film historian Tony Rayns; and Oshima’s documentary short, “Diary of Yunbogi,” which informs Death by Hanging.

Paulette: Blu-ray
While there’s certainly been no scarcity of movies about marijuana and folks who smoke imbibe, it’s the rare stoner flick that’s advanced the subgenre beyond Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, which, in 1978, was dismissed by critics, but has since been embraced by tens of millions of entry-level potheads and their nostalgic parents. Among the titles that have endured are Half Baked, The Big Lebowski, Dazed and Confused, Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Go, The Wackness and Smiley Face. The jury’s still out on last year’s Dope and Inherent Vice. Tucked into a smaller niche are curiosities as Humboldt County, Saving Grace and Paulette, which aren’t any more about the stoner phenomenon than were Easy Rider and The Harder They Come, although parsing the difference might require an X-Acto knife. All three of these stories are told from the supply side, with Saving Grace and Paulette adding a clever senior-citizen twist to proceedings. In Saving Grace (2000), Brenda Blethyn’s recently widowed character conspires with her gardener, played by Craig Ferguson, to solve their financial dilemmas by growing high-grade pot in her greenhouse and selling it in London. The next logical project for British director Nigel Cole would be the delightfully cheeky Calendar Girls. Newly released in DVD/Blu-ray, Paulette takes a slightly different tack on the subject of widows and weed. In it, the late New Wave star Bernadette Lafont (The Mother and the Whore) plays an unlikeable old crone, who’s managed to alienate almost everyone in her life, except a very few elderly friends. Aggressively bigoted, Paulette distanced herself from her daughter for marrying a cop of African descent and bringing a mixed-race grandson into her life. She also refuses to disguise her distaste for the immigrants who’ve changed the racial balance in her neighborhood.

One night, while digging through piles of junk on the street, Paulette comes into possession of a large chunk of hashish. Instead of handing it over to her son-in-law, she makes a deal with the local drug dealer to share proceeds from anything she can sell on her daily rounds. Naturally, she discovers plenty of eager customers for such high-quality product. The dealer is sufficiently impressed to increase her supply, the proceeds from which she needs to prevent eviction. Almost accidentally, Paulette extends her brand by adding hashish to her already famous baked goods. The sweets are such an instant hit that she recruits her friends to bake and sell the products. As is the case in most of these movies, Paulette’s success attracts the attention of far more organized criminals, who want to muscle into her business and force her to sell to kids with a sweet tooth. The movie’s brightest moments are supplied by 7-year-old Ismaël Dramé, who, after being dumped on his grandma in a babysitting crisis, neutralizes her bitterness by helping in the kitchen. The Blu-ray adds 10 deleted scenes.

Labyrinth of Lies: Blu-ray
Every so often, an elderly German immigrant is arrested for crimes against humanity he may have committed 70 years ago. Typically, the man has lived a simple and quiet life in a working-class suburb and has kids and grandchildren who have only a vague idea of how he spent the war years in the Old Country. They’re as surprised as anyone else when he’s charged for crimes purportedly committed as a guard or flunky at a one of the many death camps spread across eastern Europe. They’ve heard the numbers, but can’t grasp how the bald and toothless old men they know and love could be an accomplice in the extermination of millions of Jew, Gypsies and other minorities deemed undesirable by Adolph Hitler. Perhaps, if they’d remained in Germany, they’d have blended into the woodwork like so many other camp workers. The task of locating, arresting and trying such people didn’t begin in earnest until the mid-1960s, and there were bigger war criminals laying low in Lima or working for their former enemies at Cape Canaveral or behind the Iron Curtain as spies. If Germaran officials had really been interested in prosecuting Joseph Mengele and other second-tier war criminals, all they had to do was wait for them to return home for a funeral or leave their South American lairs for Switzerland on their annual skiing vacations. Their assumed names weren’t that difficult to crack. Giulio Ricciarelli’s compelling legal drama, Labyrinth of Lies, explores this chapter in postwar history, while also showing how a handful of lawyers opened old wounds that had only recently begun to heal. After the completion of the Nuremberg trials, in autumn 1946, many Germans who served in the death camps assumed that they’d dodged a bullet and could get on with their lives. The average citizen knew less about Auschwitz than Americans who’d read stories about the liberation of the camps or seen newsreel footage captured after the Nazis split ahead of the Allied advance. Those who made it home unscathed were loath to describe what they’d seen and done in the war. It wouldn’t be until 1958 that judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer, himself a former prisoner at the Lager Heuberg camp, could establish a precedent for going after guards and other low-ranking personnel responsible for crimes already on the books and make those charges stick. It would take another five years for the actual trials to begin.

In Labyrinth of Lies, Alexander Fehling plays the young, naive and idealistic public prosecutor Johann Radmann, who had heard the name, Auschwitz, but didn’t know anything more about it. Before being assigned to Bauer’s team, a reporter had approached him about the possibility of investigating a Berlin teacher, recognized by a camp survivor as a particularly vicious guard at the camp. The teacher dismissed the queries, by presenting papers showing he was occupied elsewhere at the time. Such documentation was as uncommon as a bratwurst at a picnic on the Rhine. Everyone in Germany had played a role in the war, so it was wise for civilians not to scratch too deeply under the surface. Former Nazis still held key positions in the West German bureaucracy and could still cause trouble for people with surplus amounts of conscience. Despite encouragement from Bauer, it didn’t take long for Radmann to tire of hitting roadblocks in his inquiries, official and otherwise. The deeper he digs into his own family history – his father had been declared missing on the Eastern Front – the closer he comes to hurtful truths about friends and relatives in his inner circle. It wasn’t until he was allowed to go beyond the borders of Germany to locate camp survivors that he could link faces and names to actions that didn’t fall under the category of “we were just following orders.” In this way, the national penchant for documenting events and collecting photographs helps him succeed. The sheer volume of information and paperwork helps explain why so many camp workers have avoided detection for all these years. Most have yet to be fully studied. Ironically, at 124 minutes, Labyrinth of Lies sometimes feels a bit too bogged down in German bureaucracy, as well. History buffs should find it to be worth the effort, though. It made the short list of foreign-language films nominated for an Oscar, but not the final five. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Ricciarelli and Fehling; deleted scenes; and a post-screening Q&A at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.

The Taviani Brothers Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when the Italian film industry was in a post-giallo doldrums and the giants had disappeared into the background, brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviano carried the standard for artistry and tradition in independently produced entertainments. The brothers became obsessed with film after seeing Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan as students in Pisa. After honing their reporting skills, they were able to merge journalism with cinema in class-conscious dramas and documentaries. Cohen Media’s The Taviani Brothers Collection is comprised of their first three films that captured the attention of international audiences: Padre Padrone, The Night of the Shooting Stars (a.k.a., “La notte di San Lorenzo”) and Kaos. They reflect the Tavianis’ commitment to retelling history in a manner that combines the integrity of neorealism with the ingenuity of folk tales and legends. Shot on location in the villages from which the stories originated, the period feel was enhanced by the use of non-actors in key roles and natural production techniques. Winner of the 1977 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, Padre Padrone is based on the autobiography by Italian scholar Gavino Ledda, who, if it were up to his Sardinian father, would have remained an illiterate shepherd all his life. Ledda didn’t escape his father’s domination until he’d left the army and, at 27, received his high school diploma. Six years later, he began his advanced studies at the Accademia della Crusca, under historical linguist Giacomo Devoto, and very soon would be nominated assistant professor in Cagliari, Sardinia. His escape from enforced poverty and menial labor provides the foundation for a story that crosses the divide separating agrarian and modern Italy.

The Night of the Shooting Stars, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at 1982 Cannes Festival, is a story about the inhabitants of a small Tuscan town, in the summer of 1944, trapped between the threat of destruction by the retreating German forces and the perhaps false promise of liberation offered by the advancing American army. It is told years after the fate of the town had been decided, by a mother to her child, almost as a fairytale. Herded into a church, after the soon-to-retreat Germans had set booby traps in their homes, the residents are divided by the possibility that they will be slaughtered in any case, or can reach the U.S. troops in time to save themselves and those left behind in the village. Tradition allows for the possibility that prayers recited during the Perseids meteor shower, which coincides with the Feast of San Lorenzo, will be answered. The supernatural aspect turns what might have been a by-the-book war story into something fair more magical and poetic. Set in the far southern province of Ragusa, Sicily, Kaos knits together four stories by master storyteller Luigi Pirandello and an epilogue, set in turn-of-the-century Italy. The Travianis’ eye for beauty is a natural fit for the twists built into the folk tales imagined by the author. The set includes a feature-length interview with the brothers that covers a lot of interesting territory.

Pray for Death: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Mutilator: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Judging from the worldwide success of the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, released in 2014, there’s no reason to believe that the ninjutsu subgenre of martial-arts flicks is danger of disappearing any time soon. In fact, fans of the franchise may already be lining up for its sequel, TMNT: Out of the Shadows, which opens June 3. For all practical purposes, though, the heyday of the ninjas ended in the 1980s, when the entries became so mechanical that they ceased being enjoyable. The 1997 Chris Farley vehicle Beverly Hills Ninja did OK at the box office, but it relied mostly on the sight gags provided by watching the deceptively athletic actor executing slicker-than-owl-shit moves alongside the more adept Robin Shue. The thing that distinguishes ninja films from most samurai and wuxia titles is that, by definition, ninja (a.k.a., shinobi) were assassins, scouts and spies hired by territorial lords to conduct operations from which samurai were forbidden, according to the bushido code. In other words, they could employ stealth, costumes and all manner of flying weaponry to serve their masters.

Arrow Video has resurrected a prime example of the western ninja film in Gordon Hessler and James Booth’s 1985 action-thriller Pray for Death. If there had been anything resembling a bushido code in place for directors and writers of martial-arts pictures, they would have been honor bound rewrite the screenplay several more times before unleashing on an unsuspecting public. Fans deserved more than a promising premise. Before leaving Japan, at 19, in pursuit of an economics degree at Cal State/L.A., Sho Kosugi won the All Japan Karate Champion title and was a promising baseball player. Economics would take a back seat to teaching martial arts and competing on the North American circuit. It took eight more years for Kosugi to graduate from extra roles to co-starring in Enter the Ninja. In Pray for Death, Kosugi plays an Okinawan restaurateur and secret ninja warrior who allows his half-American wife to talk him into moving to America for a business opportunity. No sooner than he and his family pass through Customs than his character is targeted by the mob for allegedly stealing a necklace he couldn’t possibly have known existed. The morons decide to pressure Akira by threatening his wife and two sons. Soon, real tragedy strikes, and Akira decides to go ninja on the crime boss (Michael Constantine), his henchman (James Booth) and a small army of corrupt cops. Everything leads to the excellent fight in a mannequin warehouse that caps the movie.

The truly strange thing about Pray for Death is that Kosugi’s two pre-teen sons play key roles in fighting and non-fighting roles. It’s fun to watch then-11-year-old Kane Kosugi kick ass, almost side-by-side with his dad. The Arrow Video Blu-ray includes the unrated and R-rated versions of the movie, which are differentiated by varying degrees of simulated violence and a scene with an attempted rape, murder and bare breasts. Today, it probably would rate an R, even though the presence of the kids in such close proximity is a tad disturbing. There’s nothing wrong with the Blu-ray restoration, which adds two good interviews with the star, one vintage and the other new, and a trailer gallery. The nasty material edited out of the R-version is distinguishable by the unfinished color coding.

There is absolutely nothing fresh or particularly original about Mutilator (a.k.a., “Fall Break”), a 1984 chase-and-kill slasher flick that only made some noise at the box office outside North Carolina, where it was made, and because it promised of lots of unrated gore and T&A.  (It did enjoy a short run on 42nd Street and the grindhouse circuit, apparently.) Still, as an early example of DIY filmmaking, it’s earned whatever cult notoriety it achieved. Obscurity has never been a factor in determining the release of Arrow Video products, however, so the company’s interest in the inventive special effects and tagline, “By sword, by pick, by axe, bye-bye …,” isn’t particularly surprising. Shot largely in a beachside cottage by first- and last-time director Buddy Cooper, Mutilator practically defines the old phrase, “amateur night in Dixie.” North Carolina had yet to emerge as a production hub, so Cooper and his team had to rely heavily on previously untested local talent. Only a few would go on to work on another film and most of those folks were involved in behind-the-camera activities (makeup supervisor Mark Shostrom, cinematographer Peter Schnall). In addition to Arrow’s 2K restoration from original vault materials of the R-rated and unrated versions of the film, the set adds original mono audio; brand new interviews with cast and crew; reversible sleeve, featuring original artwork; fully-illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film, alongside archive articles from Fangoria magazine; and a very entertaining making-of featurette.

Estranged: Blu-ray
With a protagonist named January, it wasn’t difficult for me to flash on Wednesday of “The Addams Family,” as the nasty business in Estranged began to thicken. Amy Manson could easily pass for a grown-up version of Wednesday Addams, if she had decided that things had gotten far too weird at home and ran away to South America with her perfectly non-ooky boyfriend. After nearly being killed in a collision between motorcycle and car, Wednesday comes down with a bad case of amnesia about certain key aspects of her life. Not only has she forgotten her family, but also the circumstances that caused her to leave home. As it turns out, January’s family could easily give the Addams a run for their money. It takes viewers about 10 minutes to figure out why her return to the remote English estate was ill-advised and, confined to a wheelchair, as she is, how alone she feels when her quite unwelcome boyfriend disappears into thin air. Her chronically withdrawn mom and hulking beast of a dad (Eileen Nicholas, James Cosmo), if they are who they say they are, say that January is welcome to stay, but only on their terms. Her brother, sister and butler (Nora-Jane Noone, James Lance, Craig Conway) are every bit as creepy and similarly sadistic. The only question left to answer is whether January can regain her memory before it’s too late. The package adds a making-of featurette.

The Iron Ministry
Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with train travel will want to find J.P. Sniadecki’s documentary, The Iron Ministry, which was filmed over three years on China’s vast network of railways. I haven’t seen another movie that so accurately captures the sensory overload that comes with long-distance travel in crowded carriages, teeming with passengers of all ages, vendors, conductors, janitors and small-time hustlers. The only thing missing is the smell of a ripe passenger car, a day or more into a long journey, its garbage bins and ashtrays overflowing with cigarettes, diapers, food, aftershave and cologne. Women carry produce onto the train in baskets hanging from a bow, while men butcher meat and hang the pieces on hooks between the cars. Sniadecki had no problem finding people to share their opinions on almost every subject under the sun. The only place his cameras weren’t particularly welcome was in the sections reserved for people who could afford first-class tickets. The contrast between the treatment of first-class passengers and those in steerage would make Chairman Mao spin in his mausoleum. The Iron Ministry is the latest feature production from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is less interested in scenery than human interaction, even if it’s limited to watching a railroad employee sweeping up a small mountain of debris dropped on the floor for lack of anywhere else to put it. It’s also possible to learn a lot from watching weary travelers sleep or try to find a position conducive for a cat nap, at least. Last year, 2.5 billion people traveled by rail across the wide expanse of China. This year, alone, China Railway Corp. plans to spend $121.5 billion toward construction, expansion and modernization of its system, with an eye toward attracting tourists and business travelers. If only American politicians weren’t so pigheaded about investing in rail service here. The Iron Ministry is the perfect companion piece for Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, which documents the annual migration of China’s 130 million workers to their home villages for the New Year’s holiday.

PBS: Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
National Geographic: Saints & Strangers
PBS: Best of Big Blue Live
PBS: Hudson River School: Artistic Pioneers
PBS: American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde
PBS: Frontline: Terror in Little Saigon
McHale’s Navy/McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force
Nickelodeon: Blaze & The Monster Machines: Rev Up & Roar
If through some wrinkle in time it would have been possible for members of the Black Panther Party of the 1960s to have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, instead of a bunch of heavily armed ranchers and marginally employed rednecks, how long would it have taken the federal government to clear the grounds? Or, for that matter, militants of the American Indian Movement or SDS. In the same regard, how many of the NRA supporters who have won the right to carry weapons into schools, shopping malls and movie theaters are willing to credit Huey Newton and Bobby Seale for demanding that American citizens be allowed to openly carry firearms, even in the halls of the California State Legislature? None, probably. By contrast, if the FBI hadn’t successfully crushed the BPP, using illegal surveillance tactics and other provocations, would police officers around the country so freely shoot to kill children and young people of color? Those questions and more naturally come to mind while watching Stanley Nelson’s “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” which was picked up for airing on PBS. Released to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, the film features firsthand accounts from participants, including Kathleen Cleaver, the first Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party; Elaine Brown, former Black Panther Party chairman; Emory Douglas, the party’s Minister of Culture and chief art director for the party’s newspaper; retired police officers; lawyers; and much archival news footage. Police repression and government legal maneuvering inspired white radicals and liberal activists to enter the fray on the side of BPP, even when their contributions were questioned. The free breakfast programs for children in impoverished neighborhoods was largely ignored by the media or dismissed as a diversion. When Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Seale chained to his chair and gagged in the trial of the Chicago 8, simply for demanding his right to a fair trial, the national media began to understand what was at stake. Even so, when police raided the apartment of Illinois BPP chairman Fred Hampton, killing him and another sleeping member, the local Chicago media bought into the lie that he was killed in a “shootout.” In fact, an investigation soon would show that the hail of bullets was one-sided and the raid was based on lies supplied by a paid FBI informant. If the same thing had happened to one of the leaders of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, the shit storm would be keep Fox News buzzing for months. In effect, though, the Black Panthers were victims of their own image campaign. The black clothes, leather jackets, shades, berets and swagger – with or without openly carried weapons — brought the awe and respect of students and community members, along with the contempt and fear of J. Edgar Hoover, who demanded the movement be quashed. It wouldn’t take long before the national party collapsed under the weight of its individual egos, internecine squabbling, legal costs, paranoia and dissension. Much of what’s reported in Nelson’s film may qualify as old news, even if most of it has been long forgotten. What remains is the ironic notion that the more things changed in the early 1970s, the more they’ve stayed the same in the relations between the African American community and trigger-happy police, even with a black president. “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” ends on a reflective note, neither optimistic nor overly pessimistic. Neither does a recounting of the party’s official list of demands by survivors sound particularly radical compared to the inflammatory rhetoric of the Republican leaders in Congress and candidates perfectly willing to arm right-wing kooks.

If it weren’t for the necessary violence and mild language concerns, the National Geographic Channel’s 192-minute mini-series, “Saints & Strangers,” would be an appropriate docudrama to show schoolchildren before they prepared for their first Thanksgiving pageant. By the time they’re adults, most of the wee pilgrims and Indians will have forgotten the message of the story, anyway, and this vivid representation is likely to stick in their memory longer than any recollection of Squanto’s good works and the promise of that first communal meal. Paul A. Edwards’ mini-series is best when it depicts the landscape of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and divisions that tested the resolve of both the English and Native Americans who populated the region. To put it bluntly, the pilgrims were divided by greed and religious fanaticism, with soldiers on hand to do what all soldiers are trained to do best: kill people who are a mystery to them. The religious colonists know that robbing graves and stealing food could cause problems down the road, but, since it’s God’s will for them to survive in Plymouth, it’s probably OK. For their part, the Pokanoket, Narragansett, Massachusetts and Wampanoag tribes were rewarded for peaceful overtures, generosity and restraint with an epidemic and being sold as slaves after 50 years of piece. Among the cast members are Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”), Anna Camp (“Pitch Perfect”), Ron Livingston (“Office Space”), Ray Stevenson (“Rome”) and Natascha McElhone (“Californication”). Comedian/actor Tatanka Means (“Maze Runner”) and Kalani Queypo (“The New World”) and Del Zamora (“The Red Road”) may be recognizable in the Native American cast. All in all, it probably would have been better if Native Americans had discovered Europe, instead of the other way around. The DVD adds several deleted scenes.

As occasionally happens during TV coverage of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am tournament, the competition was dwarfed by the majesty of the oceanside setting. The sun shone on the competitors for the entire weekend, but the drama of a close finish was a sideshow to the crashing waves, blimp sightings of whales and other aquatic life, and scores of people gathered on the beach for reasons other than golf. Conditions aren’t always as conducive to tourism on the Monterey Peninsula. Sometimes, the fog turns Carmel, Pebble Beach and its 17 Mile Drive into a ghostly journey to points unknown. The terrific PBS documentary “Best of Big Blue Live” reminds us that golf isn’t the only thing that brings visitors to peninsula each spring. In what some might consider to be a perfect storm of disparate ecological forces, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary provides a semi-permanent home for marine life attracted by a bounty in krill and other edible links on the foods. “Best of Big Blue Live” is a whittled-down version of the original three-hour BBC One series, which was carried live from the observation deck of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, as well as research vessels, helicopters and divers on the edges of the kelp beds. It documents the extraordinary rejuvenation of the once endangered ecosystem through the migratory confluence of humpback whales, blue whales, orcas, sea lions, dolphins, elephant seals, sea otters, great white sharks, shearwaters and brown pelicans. If the hosts are sometimes overly giddy about the whip-around feeds, their enthusiasm is easily excused. If nothing else, viewers will be encouraged to conserve their money for an eco-cruise the next time they’re in the neighborhood.

From PBS, “Hudson River School: Artistic Pioneers” feels like one of those intentionally dull documentaries that used to bore high school students to death and, maybe, still do. As bright and colorful as the paintings on display are, the narration and interviews are just that dull and drained of emotion. The hour-long film explores the accomplishments of the first American school of landscape painting. From early 19th Century enclaves in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Adirondack Mountains, Catskill Mountains and White Mountains of New Hampshire, a group of American painters led by British born artist Thomas Cole forged an artistic vision of the American wilderness. While frequently overlooked by art teachers and curators, who favor European artists and sculptors, museum-goers enjoy discovering monumental paintings of the American frontier on their own. They don’t even seem to mind that the artists’ sometimes stretched the visual truth by adding spectacular dawns and sunsets, Native Americans, shepherds or children at play, and other unlikely juxtapositions. The same thing would happen as American artists wandered west with the easels and encountered such natural wonders as Yosemite. Even so, they describe an America that would soon give way to the intrusions of Industrial Age. Tellingly, perhaps, the film is sponsored by something called Clean Oil Painting, the city of Rhinebeck, N.Y., a paper-goods store and an agency for Hudson Valley tourism. You get what you pay for, I suppose. Here, the art speaks for itself.

By contrast, PBS’ “American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde” is a real crowd-pleaser. In addition to being a story with which we all are familiar, the documentary benefits from being unencumbered by Hollywood mythology and fact compression. Unless one discounts Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were the most famous criminal couple in U.S. history. What may surprise fans of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is the savagery of Barrow’s early prison experience and Parker’s movie-magazine vision of live outside Depression-era Texas. He bore no resemblance to Robin Hood, let alone Warren Beatty, and she didn’t intend for her photographs to be splashed on the pages of newspapers across the country. The undeveloped film was discovered after they were hurriedly forced to exit a hideout. Even absent the embellishments, though, “Bonnie & Clyde” is pretty entertaining. The old clippings and photographs are fascinating to see, as is coverage of their funerals … separate, but equally well attended.

While American politicians fret about undocumented workers who cross the border to provide cheap labor to agricultural conglomerates and Beverly Hills households, our government seems unwilling to protect immigrants already in this country legally from exploitation by some their own people still fighting long-lost wars. That’s one of the messages conveyed in an investigation, “Terror in Little Saigon.” It was conducted by “Frontline” and ProPublica” into the murders of five Vietnamese-American journalists and a broader pattern of violence within the refugee communities that grew up in America after the Vietnam War. The violence goes back more than 30 years and appears to have perpetrated by a death squad sponsored by the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, an organization with tentacles extending from Houston to Laos. The journalists questioned whether the front was extorting money from members of the Vietnamese community in the U.S., ostensibly to finance an invasion of their home country from Laos and Thailand. Cuban-Americans have been praying for the same miracle for more than a half-century. What the show’s reporters discovered is that the FBI has suspected the Front for many years, but quietly closed its domestic-terrorism inquiry in the late 1990s. It’s possible that it’s investigators found too many links between the CIA and the Front and tired off hitting dead ends. Even 20 years later, a reporter was able to gather information and interview suspects – some reluctantly – able to provide insight into the killings. Their arrogance and disregard for American laws is frightening, if not terribly unusual.

The most significant difference between “McHale’s Navy” and McHale’s Navy the theatrical release is the Technicolor presentation and, well, that’s it. The TV series was shot on black-and-white film, but little was gained because the movie was shot on Universal’s backlot. It must have done some business, because McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force followed a year later, this time without Ernest Borgnine and Carl Ballantine. It could also be noted that, in 1942-43, McHale’s Navy could only have joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. Even by the low standards of the mid-1960s, these movies are irredeemably boring. What might have prompted Universal to risk millions of 1997 dollars on a remake, based primarily on the presence of Tom Arnold, Debra Messing, Dean Stockwell and David Alan Grier is anyone’s guess.

AJ is an 8-year-old techie, who drives monster-truck Blaze, the top racer in Axle City. The two go on adventures that have them taking on problems involving science and math. Many of the predicaments they face are caused by Blaze’s rival, Crusher, a tractor-trailer that will do anything to beat other vehicles to the finish line. Targeted at pre-schoolers, the animated “Blaze & The Monster Machines: Rev Up & Roar” covers areas of science, technology, engineering and math. It is comprised of the episodes, “Zeg and the Egg,” “Dino Dash,” “Gasquatch” and “Dragon Island Duel,” as well as a “Blaze of Glory” video storybook.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon